Bird Watcher's General Store

Golden Eagles - 07/30/04


Dear Bird Folks:

I swear that I saw a Golden Eagle in Chatham the other day, but I can't prove it. I was all alone, and didn't have a camera. But I did have my binoculars and got a great look at the biggest brown bird of prey that I have ever seen. It was much larger than any hawk. My friends just laugh and don't believe me. You believe me don't you?

-Jerry, Dennisport

No Jerry,

I don't believe you either. But I won't laugh at you, that's your friends' job. I understand what it is like to see the best bird ever, with no one around to back up the story. I can't tell you the number of rare birds I've seen when I was alone. But I usually kept it to myself and certainly wouldn't announce it in the newspaper. You are a brave man Jerry.

The Golden Eagle is a very rare bird around here, yet lots of people see them or at least think they do. Almost all reports of Cape Cod Golden Eagles, including the one that you saw, turn out to be the very similar looking immature Bald Eagle. Bald Eagles don't get their signature white head until four or five years of age. So for the first few years they are nothing but mega big brown birds, looking much like Golden Eagles. It's very confusing.

Golden Eagles, even young ones, are basically brown all over with very little white. Immature Bald Eagles look rather mottled and ratty, with lots of white mixed in with the brown wings and body. The "golden" in the Golden Eagle refers to the golden- brown feathers on the head and nape. However, in flight, young goldens do display a broad white band on the base of their tail. See what I mean about confusing.

If you really wanted to see a Golden Eagle you would have to cross the bridge and take a short day trip to Wyoming or some place like that. Goldens are considered more of a western bird and are rather uncommon east of the Great Plains. There have been a few possible nests in New York and Maine, but their success rates have been low. There are apparently several successful nest sites up in Labrador somewhere, but it's too scary up there for anyone to check it out.

Golden Eagles are massive birds with a huge wing span. To give you an idea about how large these birds are; take your arms and spread them straight out, like you are trying to fly. Now have someone you know fairly well, or at least have had more than one date with, take a tape measure and measure your arms from finger tip to finger tip. No matter who you are, your arms won't be able to stretch out longer than a Golden Eagle's wingspan. Impressed?

Golden Eagles live in mountainous areas throughout North America and Eurasia. They are excellent hunters and were often trained by Northern Europeans to hunt prey as large as foxes and perhaps wolves. Wolves? But for the most part goldens eat small mammals like rabbits and squirrels and only serve wolf when they were expecting company.

It is the eagle's hunting skills that have gotten them into trouble. Paranoid ranchers, fearing that eagles will take their lambs, have killed Golden Eagles by the thousands. Yet evidence seems to indicate that few lambs are taken and that the ranchers may actually benefit from the small mammal control that the eagles provide.

Golden Eagles mate for life and most often build their nests on mountain cliffs. Their nests are massive, running three or four feet deep and ten feet wide, like a hot tub without the chlorine smell.

Here is some creepy info about eagles. Unlike songbirds, eagles nestlings hatch out several days apart. This causes some eaglets to grow more quickly than others. In lean years it is not unusual for the older, stronger eaglets to reduce the competition for food by killing their smaller fellow nestlings. And the parents don't interfere. And I thought I grew up in a tough household.

Will you ever see a Golden Eagle around here? It's possible, as migrants do occasionally get reported every few years or so. Will they ever nest on Cape Cod? Nope, they probably never have or ever will. Golden Eagles like mountain cliffs and even though Scargo Hill seems like the Matterhorn to us, it just doesn't cut it for the eagles.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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